Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston and the Women’s Institute of Houston. His latest book is “Victoires Never Last: Reading and Care in Times of Plague”.
It often seems that there is historically a gapa discrepancy between politics and the personalities of the British and French leaders of the time.
The Atlanticist Harold Macmillan was affable and agreeable; while his contemporary, the nationalist Charles de Gaulle, crowned French president during the Algerian crisis in 1958, was arrogant and confrontational.
Two decades later, it was the turn of the invincible Tory Margaret Thatcher to be confrontational and arrogant. And while arrogance came naturally to his French counterpart, socialist Francois Mitterrand, he was, by necessity, cooperative. And in the 1990s, it was then time for Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair – one slant-eyed, the other bright-eyed – to clash repeatedly over European and foreign policy.
With current French President Emmanuel Macron and new British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, however, the fit on both sides of the Channel seems for once as tight as the tailored skinny blue suits the two leaders both prefer. They also share an ideological style – in fact, the parallels between Sunak and Macron are many and striking.
For starters, each is the youngest head of government in his country’s post-war history. Macron was not yet 40 when he was elected president in 2017, while Sunak, who was appointed prime minister just two weeks ago, is 42.
Both are also newcomers to politics. Macron’s first bid for public office was in 2016, when he entered the presidential race. And although Sunak managed to win a seat in a safe Conservative constituency in 2014, his first bid for prime minister came only last summer after former prime minister Boris Johnson left.
Their political careers also reveal other common traits. Their respective campaign slogans — “Working!” and “Rishi!” – were both handcuffed to exclamation marks, not a trivial observation given Fowler’s notice that the punctuation signals “one who wants to add a false touch of sensation to something insane”.
Moreover, Macron and Sunak ran on their files as finance ministers in governments they were actually running against.
That both leaders began their political careers as finance ministers seems inevitable – their backgrounds, after all, were in finance. After his stint in France’s elite schools – Lycée Henri IV and École Nationale d’administration – Macron joined the private bank Rothschild & Cie in 2008, where, as chief executive, he negotiated the takeover of Pfizer by Nestlé. for 9 billion euros in 2012 – a windfall that added to Rothschild’s bottom line and Macron’s share capital. The young banker, notes with acid Le Monde, “added more contacts to his already thick Rolodex, doing what he did best: networking”.
This networking led Macron to rush across the open border between high finance and politics, as Francois Hollande, then trying to salvage his floundering presidency, appointed Macron his new finance minister in 2014.
But once the keys to Bercy were handed over, the golden boy, who had joined the Socialist Party a few years earlier, suddenly revealed himself to be a liberal recidivist. Redefining liberalism as a leftist value, Macron urged French youth to “dream of becoming billionaires”. And when his start-up political movement, En Marche!, dropped him off at the Elysee Palace two years later, his plans to transform France into a “start-up nation” came as little surprise.
Likewise, while networking at the great schools of Winchester and Oxford University, like Macron, Sunak also fell in love with Silicon Valley. Unlike Macron who dreams of a French Silicon Valley, Sunak moved to the original tech hub for an MBA at Stanford University.
Sunak never claimed he was a socialist either – an impossible trick to spin at Goldman Sachs, where he worked as an analyst, or the hedge fund firms he later joined. His liberal beliefs led him to the Conservative Party in 2010, where he eventually joined – out of conviction, not convenience – the Brexiteer wing. Brexit represented, he explained, “a unique opportunity for our country to regain control of its destiny. [and] leave our nation freer, fairer and more prosperous.
A Thatcherite, like his close friend and predecessor as Chancellor Sajid Javid, Sunak has less in common with the Tory Party’s One-Nation faction than with the New Right, favoring tax cuts – especially those aimed at the sectors finance and technology – rather than spending increases, especially for social programs.
And so also Macron during his first term. Led by his party in the National Assembly, Macron abolished the wealth tax, introduced a flat tax on capital income and instituted a gradual reduction in the corporate tax rate.
With the onset of the pandemic, however, Macron’s liberal and Sunak’s libertarian predilections both became untenable. Faced with an economic crisis unprecedented in its speed and scale, they had no choice but to act as socialists. As chancellor, Sunak pledged the state to cover 80% of workers’ wages and increased the workers’ tax credit by £1,000. And across the Channel, Macron has temporarily shelved his controversial plan to raise the retirement age and pledged to ward off the impact of the pandemic on his country “no matter the cost”.
Although the pandemic is now over, the financial, political and social crises facing Macron and Sunak are not. And the two leaders now find themselves at the head of governments with very unequal positions – Sunak is not elected by universal suffrage and Macron without an absolute majority. Unsurprisingly, many on the left insist that both men are ignorant or indifferent to the economic struggles of large swaths of their constituents.
Moreover, the two leaders have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot by retaining ministers who have, in the case of Suella Braverman, violated the ministerial code, or in the cases of Damien Abad and Eric Dupond-Moretti, are accused of breaking the law.
Both Sunak and Macron pride themselves on being reality-based, and those realities are framed by the shared belief – in Macron’s words – that more work is needed to earn more. But it remains to be seen whether this faith in the free market can really withstand the challenges that loom now, as winter is most certainly coming.